It's written well enough, as one might expect from an experienced novelist and scriptwriter (Horowitz is the hand behind “Foyle's War”) Still, he makes a surprising number of solecisms and errors, including confusion about how floors of a building are numbered. For some reason Horowitz also writes, lawyer-like, as though commas were in short supply.
But the content is all so familiar from the books we have read over the past thirty or forty years. There is the criminal mastermind, the American in London, the secret identity, the elegant social gathering, two or three scenes of torture (so unlike anything found in the original Sherlockian Canon), the atmospheric scenes with horses, the Scotland Yard inspector (about ten inspectors in this instance, in fact), the cameo appearance by an authentic historical figure, and the bloody climax in an unsavoury part of industrial London, this time the vast lower level of the Smithfield meat market. (Shane Peacock, author of a recent series of young adult novels about “the boy Sherlock Holmes”, is the master of that device, but many other authors seem to find it obligatory.)
Sherlock Holmes himself does not appear in this novel, except as an obsessive influence on Inspector Athelney Jones, who appears in it a great deal. (Who would have thought, reading The Sign of the Four, that Jones would have a room in his house papered with clippings of Holmes's achievements and stacked with books and equipment resembling his?) There is, furthermore, less of Professor James Moriarty in Horowitz's novel than one might think from the title. Still, the book is inevitably reminiscent of John Gardner's book by the same title, and Horowitz suffers for having come to the subject much later.
Really the best thing in the book is “The Three Monarchs”, a short story included after the end of the novel proper. Unlike the novel, which is mostly told in the voice of a Mr. Frederick Chase, “The Three Monarchs” is a traditional pastiche in the voice of Dr. Watson, with the familiar style and a satisfying twist as Holmes solves a mystery. It seems to demonstrate in a positive way, as Moriarty does in a negative way, that Sherlockian tales work best when they are short and witty and unified.
Copyright © Chris Redmond 2015